Thursday, May 28, 2015

John Griswold: The Best Kind of Entertainment

Crux: The Georgia Series in Literary Nonfiction is a newly-launched book series at the University of Georgia Press, named for intersections and the heart of the matter. I’m grateful to Director Lisa Bayer and the Press for creating another publishing opportunity for nonfiction writers, and I’m honored to be Series Editor. Crux will build on UGA Press’s success and reputation publishing the AWP Creative Nonfiction contest winners since 1986, and the series board is just crazy-good: Dan Gunn, Pam Houston, Phillip Lopate, Dinty W. Moore, Lia Purpura, Patricia Smith, and Ned Stuckey-French.

The series will publish up to four books per year of personal and lyric essay, memoir, cultural meditation, and literary journalism. We’re open to the best literary nonfiction we can lay hands on, whatever its mode, form, voice, or topic. We like prose that’s intelligent and accessible, and as our mission statement says, “Engagement with the world, dedication to craft, precision, and playfulness with form and language are valued.”

Regardless of its manifestation, the best writing—line-by-line and as a whole— in my view entertains, in the sense that it holds something significant before the mind for consideration. I guess editors everywhere read in hopes of finding that, whatever else their mission statements say.

By “entertaining” I don’t mean, necessarily, “big action” or “spectacle” or “plot-driven,” though those things can be pleasurable, especially with triple butter, double salt, and a Diet Coke you don’t have to share with anybody, despite the price. W.G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn, a quiet hybrid text marketed as a novel, is hugely entertaining, as are Didion’s essays, the calmly-told nightmare of Hersey’s Hiroshima, recent books by Sarah Gorham, Allen Gee, Nicole Walker, Brian Turner, and Claudia Rankine, and most anything written or anthologized by our series board members. Entertainment is legion, which is why we always need more publishing platforms.

But what constituent parts make something entertaining, in the best sense? My own editorial preferences are for qualities (in no particular order), such as:

  • The writer’s ability to see stories at every turn of the page. While anything can be of interest, nothing is more than existent until a mind turns it round in contemplation. Chapters, scenes, micros, and pointillist jots are made of significant human moments, and these moments in chorus become the books. Aurelie Sheehan’s Jewelry Box, another hybrid text, is full of them, e.g., the puzzlement over a potential beau at an arts colony, “his long hair…some kind of ‘long hair’ and his affinity for Elvis…some kind of ‘affinity for Elvis’ and his Dracula coat…a ‘Dracula coat’ and then also…the gun was a ‘gun’ but perhaps that’s where the irony leaves off, with the iron so to speak: all you’ve got left is why. Why did he show me the gun?” And: “[W]as he wooing me? Was this love?
  • An understanding that diction, sign, symbol, and image often add up to motif. That is, the writer rarely fails to hear metaphoric/poetic/thematic possibilities in her language, which might be the text essaying itself into meaning. A student of mine was working on a piece about her mother and used the odd word “ledger” instead of “diary” or “journal” to describe where she wrote her complaints re: mom. Except for its obvious connotation of bookkeeping [an accounting of their transactions, with credits and debits], “ledger” sounded like a mistake. But a glance in the dictionary revealed other useful meanings, such as a flat slab of stone over a grave [well, sure], and fishing [for truth] or angling [to get free]. When the rhetoricians say writing is a way of coming to know, this is what they mean.
  • A sense that the writer has read. Even if they change, and even if they’re meant to be shattered, literary conventions exist, and books are where we pick through older models of doing things to see what we want to use. A manuscript that calls itself immersive must balance the “I” of self with the “not-I” of others, else it’ll have to be called something else. Writing that accidentally beheads itself with the edged weapon of satire might be seen to fail.
  • Terence: Nothing human is alien to me. People eat different things, have different customs, are capable of all manner of meanness and good. Much writing I admire stays calm and nonjudgmental in the face of this, in order to best serve witness. Think of John McPhee or David Grann writing about truckers or sandhogs.
  • Turning Terence inward for the purpose of, say, memoir, the corollary might be: Not a whiff of self-pity, which is an odorous shitstain on our souls. If Primo Levi can write without self-pity, surely I can too.
  • On the other hand, there’s Emerson: “The foolish have no range in their scale, but suppose every man is as every other man. What is not good they call the worst, and what is not hateful, they call the best.” Not everything is relative. I have kids, and it’s done weird things to me: I believe in generosity, and the attempt, and fragile connection, and the dignity and sublime beauty of other people and places, and I believe in some plans working out better than others. Good writing convinces me I’m with someone who knows where to stand.
  • Emerson turned inward: Humility for our provincial selves in the range of human scale.
  • Signaling, however lightly, inner versus outer reality. I served as an Army frogman and deep-sea diver, and I’m here to report there is a physical world with consequences outside our bone helmets, and it will bite your ass. Dream, fantasy, the imagined, the conjectured—all the richness of inner life—of course are available to literary nonfiction, but they are not often the All. For me the best writing constantly checks itself against that outer world, from personal to political to environmental and back. I also appreciate writers acknowledging encounters with things that other people write and publish too.
  • After all, where inner and outer make contact, in language, is perhaps the most fascinating place to look. “[O]ne must work in fields if only for the sake of tropes and expression, to serve a parable-maker one day,” Thoreau says. I believe in experience in the world, and how it informs my inner life, so much that Crux was to be named “Curious Labor Books” until cooler heads prevailed.
  • Language as precision, compression, deadly in its effect. Even our heavyweights, Sontag, Eco, Gass, Steiner, Baudrillard, are clear and accessible.
  • Caesura, a term I’ve hijacked from poetry, for the pause to breathe, savor, ruminate, admire. Sometimes it’s a joy just to read and feel as if reading is the only necessary thing at this time in the world.
  • Writing that forces us to re-experience its own process. Montaigne essays forward, but the book in my hand is thought concretized centuries ago. The feeling that we’re making discoveries right along with the writer is a construction, but a vital one.
  • Writing that’s revised in different moods, at different times of day, in different qualities of light, creates intensity, not some watering to averages. The complex clarity developed over time helps it hold up in time.
  • A narrative mind is great, but so is an architectonic mind, an ethnographic mind, an anatomical mind, a lyrical mind, an epical mind, a moral mind, an empathetic mind, an investigative mind. The humorous mind may be rarest of all. All are most welcome. (The pollyannistic, boostero, axgrinderiste, village ecstatic, and recently- and angrily-converted minds have their own platforms, I understand, called social media.)
  • Memoir: a way of seeing patterns, making discoveries, of suggesting a life and showing processes, people, places, things. (What people know how to do is always interesting to me.) The ones I value most raise more questions than provide final answers, portray clear-sighted responses to being an individual with some sense of the sublime, of wonder, outrage, joy, sorrow, etc.

And the burgeoning Crux?

The first title in the series will be Debra Monroe’s My Unsentimental Education, which will be out in October this year.

[My Unsentimental Education is a] smart and lyrical take on the isolation that occurs when people switch social classes quickly.... Both the story of her steady rise into the professional class and a parallel history of unsuitable exes, this memoir reminds us how accidental even a good life can be. If Joan Didion advises us “to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be,” Monroe takes this advice a step further and nods at the people she might have become but didn’t. Funny, poignant, wise, My Unsentimental Education explores the confusion that ensues when a working-class girl ends up far from where she began.

(A proto-chapter appeared on my blog when the book was just a twinkle in Debra’s eye.)

Debra is the author of four books of fiction and two memoirs. She teaches in the MFA program at Texas State University.

Sonja Livingston’s Ladies Night at the Dreamland will be the second Crux title, due out Spring 2016. A collection of essays that “combine history, speculation and memory,” it’s about women and girls whose “lives range from the time of the English colonists to present-day America. [...] Some have names you might recognize, though most are shadowy figures lost to time—women and girls slipping through the world unseen.” Their “collective invisibility” becomes “the real story.” The very reason for being of this book seems to be: “saying that nothing was really lost forever—can there be anything so captivating in all the world?”

Sonja is the author of Ghostbread, which won the AWP Book Prize for Nonfiction, and the newly-released Queen of the Fall. She teaches in the MFA program at the University of Memphis.

Entertain me, I say on the phone to my closest, oldest friends, and they ask the same in return. We mean a putting-aside of ego and an attempt to tell tales that encapsulate something true. It’s what the writers in the Crux series do too, holding something significant before us for consideration. I hope you’ll read them and consider joining us if you write yourself. Either way, I look forward to hearing from you.


John Griswold is assistant professor in the MFA program at McNeese State University, Lake Charles, Louisiana, and Editor of The McNeese Review. His latest book is a collection of essays from the University of Georgia Press, called Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life.

His work has appeared in War, Literature and the Arts; Brevity; Natural Bridge; and Ninth Letter. He’s also written, as Oronte Churm, for McSweeney's Internet Tendency and Inside Higher Ed, where he’s blogged since 2006. Contact him at <>.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Queer Essay Interviews: Maggie Nelson

This interview with Maggie Nelson is the fourth installment in a series about queerness, genre, and essays. Nelson is the author of a number of nonfiction and poetry books, including Bluets (Wave), The Red Parts: A Memoir (Free Press), and Women, The New York School, and Other True Abstractions (University of Iowa). Below, we talk about her latest book, The Argonauts (Graywolf).

Check out the previous interviews in this series with Jackie Wang, Ching-In Chen, and Douglas A. Martin.


T Clutch Fleischmann: As with the other interviews, I’d like to open by asking about your relationship to categories of genre and of gender/sexuality. So, first off, your work has engaged with a number of genres, although arguably has veered more toward essay in recent years. Do you think of yourself as an essayist? As a multi-genre writer? When you set out to begin a project, does categorization of genre enter your mind?

Maggie Nelson: You know, I’ve never made any substantive claim on the word essay. I don’t think all essays are domesticated, but for some reason that’s the connotation the word has for me. For that reason it often feels too genteel a word to describe some of the work that most compels me. I mean, is David Wojnarowicz’s Close to the Knives a book of “essays”? I wouldn’t, couldn’t, say so.

I don’t think about genre very much, though I get it that a lot of people are these days. I think that, if I ever have the suspicion that a particular conversation might inhibit or delimit my writing, I self-protectively steer away from it, which is what I’ve ended up doing on this account.

I want to reference something Jackie Wang said in this series when I talked to her about traditions of genre: “Whatever protocols I’m adhering to while writing are unbeknownst to me though I don’t doubt they are operating on me on an unconscious level. With academic writing it’s a little clearer to me—especially as I try to transition into becoming a ‘historian.’ When I sit down to write a paper I have a much clearer sense of what I’m doing. With creative writing the structure or genre either emerges in the process of writing, or is specific to the occasion for writing itself.” I’m curious if this resonates with you, also. In particular, the way you bring other writers and traditions of thinking into The Argonauts leaves an opportunity to also invite in the protocols attendant to those writers, even if the text itself is not working in a strictly academic or critical mode.

Yes, I understand what Jackie is saying, and she says it quite well. I agree—the structure or genre always emerges in the act of writing, or at least that’s always how it has been for me. I guess where I might differ is that I will likely never again sit down to write an academic paper or work in any genre whose conventions I’m bound in any way to respect. Also, I feel the same process of discovery of structure and genre when I’m writing “critically” or “creatively”—there’s no difference for me anymore, if there ever was one.

In terms of gender and sexuality, do you think of yourself as a queer writer, or of your work as somehow queer? I’ve always read your work as being engaged in a variety of queer modalities, yet The Argonauts is the most explicitly queer in terms of content.

Your question makes me think about this bit about Sedgwick in The Argonauts, where I write: “Sedgwick once proposed that ‘what it takes—all it takes—to make the description “queer” a true one is the impulsion to use it in the first person,’ and that ‘anyone’s use of “queer” about themselves means differently from their use of it about someone else.’” What’s funny to me is that even though I completely agree with her, she’s obviously (here) most interested in self-identification, whereas to me the word “queer” often seems more useful or compelling when untethered to first person usage. Maybe it follows that I’m very invested in queer literary genealogy/ genealogies, which I would be very happy for my work to be seen as a part of, more so than I care about the (self)-designation “queer writer,” as the latter seems to beg biographical questions and introduce codified notions of what qualifies as queer to which I’ve always felt allergic.

Is it fair to assume that the queer literary genealogies you mention are similar to the listing of the many-gendered mothers of your heart? The sappy crones? Is there anyone in addition to the ones mentioned in the text directly (Barthes, Sprinkle, Schuyler, Ginsberg, Clifton, Sedgwick, etc.) that should have special attention drawn to them? I'm also interested in queer as being, as you say, untethered from first person usage, as an action or a thinking rather than an identity category. Instead of identity categories, then, could you speak to some of the qualities of action/thought in these figures and their genealogies that connect to your own work? What makes Barthes queer, for instance, if queer isn't an identity category?

Yeah, a lot of that genealogy is just laid out all over the pages, so it seems a little redundant to go over it again. One thing I adore about that Dana Ward poem (“A Kentucky of Mothers”) is that it’s his claiming of these people as his many-gendered mothers that makes them so, not any preexisting identity on their part (this is obviously related to queerness as an action or free-floating attribute rather than an identity). In that sense, it’s fun to think about Emerson or Frederick Douglass or Nietzsche etc. as many-gendered mothers of my heart. Which is kind of like that amazing William Pope.L line I discuss in The Art of Cruelty: “I think one must say in all honesty, ‘Boy, that Martin Luther King Jr. sure had a big vagina.’ This, I think, says something. It gives the legacy of King’s body as a (w)hole worth having. It digs him up from the catacombs of celebration and presence and places him in the lived moment of contraries where we all have to deal.” I like this game. It’s fun to think of certain people as one’s fathers, too (Gertrude Stein comes to mind, of course.)

Who else would you put in the fathers category? Gertrude Stein feels like a perfect one to me too—so many of the associations I put with fatherhood (positive and not) apply to her.

Bob Creeley first comes to mind. I’ll keep thinking.

Among the many-gendered mothers/fathers/aunts/etc., who are the sex writers and pornographers that stand out? I remember you liked Guibert’s Mausoleum of Lovers, which Douglas A. Martin also talked about and which is likewise filled with great sex writing.

Yes, Guibert is a favorite for all time. At the risk of repeating myself, I will reproduce a list I recently made in conversation with my friend Darcey Steinke: Georges Bataille, Eileen Myles, Bruce Benderson, Paul Preciado, Catherine Millet, Harriet Daimler, Pat Califia, Violette LeDuc. Surely there are many more, but that’s a start. You? I’d love some suggestions.

The people who jump to mind are Kathy Acker, Samuel R. Delany (if I ever meet him I need to chew up my nails first), Bruce Hainley, Jenny Zhang. I’m in the process of moving and all my books are in boxes around me so I can’t look at them, which feels erotic now.

Do you think that engaging in more explicitly queer content in The Argonauts affected your approach to other aspects of the text--to its structure, for instance, or its genre, or the way you construct the self on the page?

No, I don’t really think so. Honestly I don’t think of this book as “queerer” than anything else I’ve written. I can see how some people might think so, due to the book’s more explicit reckoning with gender and sexuality, homo/heteronormativity, transfeminism, etc., not to mention its inclusion of the accusation from my partner, who says to me at one point, “You’ve written about all parts of your life except this, except the queer part.” But even though in the book I have myself snapping back, “Give me a break—I haven’t written about it yet,” in some ways I think that was an untruth produced under the pressure of an argument. Because I know I’ve been writing about the same issues, albeit in different forms, from different angles, my whole life. What I was really saying to him was, Give me a break—I haven’t written about us yet.

Also, just to throw in a completely contradictory sentiment, I’ve also always felt a lot of kinship with Willem de Kooning’s comment, highlighted by Sontag in Against Interpretation, that “Content is a glimpse of something, an encounter like a flash. It’s very tiny—very tiny, content.”

Back to Sedgwick, I was excited that you talk in Argonauts about Sedgwick's description of her own sex life, as being vanilla and freshly-cleaned and with a cis man, etc. (the things that make people describe Sedgwick as straight sometimes). When I talked to Douglas, he said something that echoed her-- "'I don't care, we can just have vanilla boyscout sex forever,' that’s one of the sexiest things ever said to me." He also kind of nonchalantly announces, of queer, "If someone wants to call me one, call it because they see it that way, I'm cool with that. Yeah. I don't feel like I own my interpretation." Do you think that kind of nonchalance, that disowning of interpretation, can offer any sort of rebuttal to conversations that might otherwise dismiss or restrict?

Yes, I agree that nonchalance and a practiced disowning of interpretation can go a very long way. I feel very simpatico with Douglas here (and elsewhere) in many respects: never underestimate the value of the shrug. But of course it’s all contextual—I mean, if there’s an instance at which it’s going to change someone’s life to hear you identify publically as queer, or something else contested or reviled (high school auditoriums come immediately to mind . . .), then that nonchalance might want to give way to a strategic and unapologetic declaration.

You mention that for a while you were "learning to address no one," and that this impulse ended when you started seeing (loving?) Harry. I'm curious first about what lead you to want to address no one-- both why that impulse might have arisen, and how you might attempt to do that? And then, if you could talk more about that turn back to addressing someone-- in this book, addressing at some points Harry, at some points the reader, and at some points maybe a blurry ground where both exist in one (multiplying and specifying). You say that you can address Harry because you feel that "I can give you everything without giving myself away," but I assume that's not how you feel about the reader, also?
You also state that part of the project of writing for you is to find "my own me," and that this impulse (a thing you can only do in writing) made you ultimately turn away from collaborating with Harry. So I'm wondering if you could also speak more to the difference between collaboration and address-- what each offers you in terms of possibilities, of risks, etc.

I’ve never done much collaboration, save for another life in dance, so I can’t really speak to that. I think what I was getting at, re: address, is that I came up in love with a certain poetic tradition which performs address very explicitly, be it Frank O’Hara’s Personism or Paul Celan’s intimate I/you universe or Sylvia Plath’s hot accusations and so on, and there’s something about this intimacy or heat that I’ve tried to take to every kind of writing I do, more or less. But of course there are going to be moments in writing when you’re not talking to an other, when you’re talking to yourself, or to the universe, or whatever, and it’s an ongoing interest of mine to figure out how to keep these forms of declaration or interrogation feeling alive and driven when their addressee is diffuse.

I'm also a big fan of A. L. Steiner's work, especially in collaboration with Zachary Drucker. Are you familiar with "Before/After, 2009-present?" I'm curious if you have any thoughts on this piece in regards to embodiment, how embodiment(s) can form meaning in text or image, etc. I ask because it strikes me as having similar modes to Argonauts, with the true or false statements recalling the male playwright who mentions your pregnancy during a question and answer session, calling you back to your body in a way that can be read as problematic, even as the book itself celebrates embodied thought.

I love this piece and I love Steiner and Drucker’s work. I’m excited to be screening a fantastic film by them (and others) at Lincoln Center Film Society next week, called You Will Never Be a Woman. You Must Live The Rest of your Days Entirely As a Man and You Will Only Grow More Masculine With Every Passing Year. There is No Way Out (A.L. Steiner and Zackary Drucker, with Van Barnes and Mariah Garnett, 2008). Both this film and “Before/After” do similar work, in terms of pairing bodies with text in order to call attention to the disciplinary/ brutal aspects of gendered language, but both are ultimately in service of reclamation, via irreverence, wit, and play. Meanwhile, the “actual” body, in all its anarchic beauty, mystery, and specificity, runs alongside the language, providing this other opportunity for meditation. And you’re right—being called back to one’s body, when the call is made by another (as in the playwright episode), is rarely experienced as liberatory, whereas sticking with one’s own complex embodied experience and articulating it can be tremendously so. The problem is that you can’t neatly partition off one experience from another; that’s not how selves are made, or how bodies circulate. Judith Butler is extremely helpful here, in her work on how becoming a subject necessarily involves a certain subjugation, a formation by powers that precede our existence and can be experienced as dominating—pulverizing, even. But since we can’t just wish this dependency or subjugation away, precisely, we’re left with figuring out how to undo its most terrorizing and unjust aspects, and how to amplify the reparative, sustaining ones. I think Steiner and Drucker are onto this paradox in their use of body and language; it’s a paradox I like to imagine animating The Argonauts as well.

That final scene, the dance party in the home with the children and Harry, is probably my favorite moment of the book. It reminds me of the Barthes idea that the utopian is marked by the quotidian, and in particular the way Muñoz makes use of that idea in Cruising Utopia to talk about “signaling a queerness to come, a way of being in the world that is glimpsed through reveries in a quotidian life that challenges the dominance of an affective world, a present, full of anxiousness and fear.” I’m curious how you see your work relating to Muñoz, then, as I read it as having a lot of similarities but also a lot of differences. Maybe another way to ask this question is just, what does happiness have to offer the present?

I’m kind of obsessed with this sentence from Barney Frank’s recent memoir: “If you care deeply about an issue and are engaged in group activity on its behalf that is fun and inspiring and heightens your sense of solidarity with others, you are most certainly not doing your cause any good.” I laughed out loud when I read this, since for so many people— Muñoz likely among them—honing in on when we feel inspired and in solidarity and communion with others is, like, the whole game. The idea that such feelings signal a wrong turn couldn’t be more antithetical to, say, the type of experiential politics of Occupy, or a certain kind of feminist/queer/antiracist subculture which deeply values its own knowledges, its own pleasures, its own humor, even its own undoing. Anyway, in case it’s not obvious, I’m with Muñoz and others who think that if we ignore such information, we’re lost. We waste our present lives and quite possibly our future. I love Muñoz but I do struggle a bit with his interest in futurity and utopia. It speaks to me if I turn it a certain way in the light.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Visual Essayists V: Bianca Stone

S: I've just finished reading Antigonick (your collaboration with Anne Carson) for the second time and I’m interested in the story behind that project. I know that you took Carson’s collaboration class at NYU’s MFA program—Did you begin working together during that course, or afterwards?

B: During my class with her I was doing a lot of work with images. We talked a lot about it. After I graduated we’d continue talking about the idea of the comic book. She wanted to explore combining image with her translation of Antigone, which she was working on at the time. Our idea was see how we could integrate image and text in a different way, to make a comic book that didn’t look anything like a comic book. I was really developing my idea of the poetry comic at that time and I think Antigonick really pushed me forward.

Illustration from Antigonick, a collaboration between Bianca Stone and Anne Carson

S: Something I love best about Antigonick is the inclusion of translucent pages that allow text and image to mingle visually across the book. There’s a sort of privacy signaled when I flip those pages and see the diaphanous image in reverse on the verso side, and the text that had first appeared behind it in recto. It seems a little like a peek inside the machine, into the space where the two interact. Was the decision to include translucence about bringing the two mediums closer? How did you choose this element as a collaborative team?

B: Anne’s partner, Robert Currie, was taken with examples of vellum in books; we really wanted to use it for something. In a way, I didn’t fully expect that element of multiple viewings, of turning the page and having the combinations change, but I find it supernatural. Vellum has a futuristic and classic quality.

It was a good way to mix image and text, since Anne and I couldn’t figure out how to bring the two together. I wanted word bubbles and they didn’t. So it was really Robert Currie came up with the idea for the layout. And it worked wonderfully.

Poetry Comic by Bianca Stone

S: It seems like the name we use for this kind of multimedia text-image work is kind of a tired subject that depends on the primary genre an artist is working from. But I’m interested in why you think so many artists and writers come to visual writing as if they are discovering it for the first time. Why is the tradition behind this genre something we aren’t more aware of?

B: We’re raised to myopically study one discipline. We’re not encouraged to even read things outside of our area—especially in higher education. And partly, the brain needs to focus on one thing to really get good at it. But we become too comfortable in what we know. So much art gets lost when we shut down to the possibility of other interests, and the possibility that those other interests can be relevant to our profession.

So, when an adult writer gets the sudden chance to bring the arts into their life again (as children we have the blessed opportunity to try many things and to bring art into everything), it’s like discovering it for the first time. The excitement is palpable.

Also, think about the comic book form in general: it’s one of the biggest instances of image and text working together and it’s massively popular. And we can trace that sequential image back to cave paintings. But things have changed, too. These aren’t new concepts, but there is great swaths of newness in acceptance and execution happening too fast for us to define it.

For example, look at the internet: it’s simply a continuous combination of image and text. Our expectations for that have risen greatly in the past ten years. We expect a lot more now from text and image without even knowing it. In that way, I think people feel that the conscious union in art is new, because of our higher expectations. The means to do it and share it are more readily available. We’ve acclimated to taking in lots of information at one time. We think it’s new because, partly, it is. Our relationship with the visual static and continuous image has evolved. And that relationship has changed everything; the entire course of the history of arts is changing. We’re accelerating into the curb right now in time.

Poetry Comic by Bianca Stone
S: Part of the project behind this series is to develop a vocabulary to talk about how language and visual elements work together. Can you add to this by choosing one or two words describe the particular relationship between your texts and your images? Or can you make one up?
B: All that stuff I just said about the internet age and the changing social artistic tide: people don’t know the right name to call any of it, because we’re in the thick of it. I think you’re totally right about the lack of rhetoric, the language we use to describe it, as needing to be developed.

I call it Poetry Comics. It’s not my term, I don’t claim it as just mine, but it’s the term of my life now. The more I use it, the more wide and beautiful it is. It’s not just comic strips. It’s using the idea of what a comic book does and what a poem does. It’s a moving forward, an illustrative lyrical expression. Poetry Comics does what poetry does with Keats’ negative capability and it courts mystery and mystical meaning, but it hovers on the concrete. Robert Loss wrote an article about Poetry Comics as “Profluent Lingering,” and I think that term is fantastic. “the result of the variable tensions between a generally narrative progression and a quality of stillness, both of which manifest in multiple media—pages, panels, images and words—that are arranged sequentially” (from the Comics Journal, March 9, 2015)

I think the term Poetry Comic rolls off the tongue so beautifully. I don’t like Comics Poetry because I want poetry first. There’s Visual Poetry, but I think that’s more specific to poetry. There’ll be many names for that we haven’t even come to yet.

Poetry Comic by Bianca Stone

S: In the vein of craft, something I’ve been thinking about with regards to Poetry Comics is the intentional sectioning of images and text inherent to most examples in the genre. These divisions suggest that a panel might work like a stanza does in that it allows the viewer moments of silence or transition between. This seems like a key tactic in combining text and image. I wonder if you have any ideas about additional means for dividing a reader’s time or for controlling the reading process by designing space?
B: A lot of times I don’t even use a panel. I hate sometimes how it won’t let me sprawl. I think you have to depend on the text you’re using to feel out the form on the page. It should mimic how you want the eye to move. That control is not perfect and it never will be. It’ll never be like reading a poem! I realized that, but I also know that poets choose line breaks and stanza breaks to align with the music and content of the poem. It’s an almost subconscious act. I just don’t know. I’m always striving to do better.

Poetry Comic by Bianca Stone

S: I'm interested in something you said during a recent interview on The Rumpus about text that has space left in it, and thus allows or suggests the inclusion of visual work. As someone who begins with the text, do you think that poetry comics are always more successful when their poems are abstract?
B: I think some poems lend themselves more to having visual images, but it’s the choices you make that matter. I think what can happen with narrative poetry is that people try very hard to illustrate exactly what’s happening, which is redundant. The image can be narrative without repeating the narrative, but rather being another element of it. In fact, I always like using my more direct lines, that way I can be more abstract with the images, and it won’t confuse the reader too much. I don’t want to confuse, I want to illuminate.

Poetry Comic by Bianca Stone

S: There seems something important about the brief nature of poetry comics that makes them lend themselves well to place-based presentation such as in installations or margin notes. Where do you think image-text work should be encountered? Or, ideally, where would you like a viewer to read your own work?
B: I think we should be making more full-length books. Like Lynda Barry’s amazing Picture This, or Maira Kalman’s Principals of Uncertainty. In a book you can develop an arch that allows for the reader to become engaged in what you’re doing. But actually, it’s all around us. It’s just a matter of acknowledging it, and engaging with it.

Poetry Comic by Bianca Stone

S: For me, it feels like there is still not a lot of space within better-known journals and presses for literary work that involves visual elements. Can you tell us a bit about Monk Books? Does the press ever seek out work that includes images? Or, what does it mean to “make books as deliberate and artful as the texts within”?

B: A lot of people ask me where they can publish their hybrid works. I think journals and magazines are becoming much more open to it. Poetry Magazine now accepts “visual poetry” and they’re very much into the whole idea of poetry comics. There’s also Ink Brick, which I helped found, run by Paul K. Tunis and Alexander Rothman, which is solely for “Comics Poetry”.

Monk Books started out as a press where we wanted to make chapbooks that had some form of visual art in them, much like illuminated books the ancient monks used to make. But we now do more poetry than anything else, although my husband, Ben Pease, who edits it with me is doing a whole new series, a yearly anthology, where writers and artists who create mixed genre work can publish longer pieces. That’s all wrapped up with The Ruth Stone Foundation, too. We will do all we can to foster homes for hybrid work.

Bianca Stone is the author of several poetry chapbooks and an ongoing poetry-comic series from Factory Hollow Press. She is the illustrator of Antigonick, a collaboration with Anne Carson, and her first full-length collection of poetry “Someone Else’s Wedding Vows” is forthcoming from Tin House/Octopus Books. She lives in Brooklyn where she runs the small press, Monk Books, with poet Ben Pease.

Sarah Minor curates the Visual Essay series here at Essay Daily. 

Monday, May 18, 2015

Greg Wrenn: on writing for the future, and drawing the knife along the belly of the deer

Reef Album

Last month, packing up the last of my things in my childhood bedroom, I found an old album, its cardboard cover resembling snakeskin. Inside were photographs I had taken over twenty years ago in the Florida Keys with a disposable underwater camera. The edges of the pages were stained.

Toward the end was the page that, cutting through the defensive chatter of my mind, called out to me as an essay—


You and I have heard it many times—“essay” comes from a French verb meaning “to try”—followed by what’s now almost a platitude: essays should be insightful, vulnerable attempts to understand the self in the world. But as I fall in love, haltingly, with essays, I need a new paradigm beyond trying. I consider myself an environmentalist, a pescatarian at times, and yet I’m drawn to the old phrase “to take the essay,” which meant “to draw the knife along the belly of the deer, beginning at the brisket, to discover how fat he is” right after the animal has fallen dead during a hunt. (That’s how James Orchard Halliwell-Phillips, a nineteenth-century Shakespearean scholar, defines it in his dictionary of archaic words.)

Increasingly my ideal essay involves that kind of impromptu, exploratory surgery—in the dark, brambly woods of consciousness, we hunt for insights and unreliable memories until they are captured on the page; with the nicked, scratched blade of writerly attention, we cut through our conditioned perceptions, through the instep arch of our sleepwalking carbon culture, to see just what kind of substance is there, what was hidden beneath the chatter and propaganda; both reader and writer return to the village, so to speak, with blood stains because things got a little messy. This approach to writing is not unlike Thoreau’s philosophy in Walden: “to live deep… to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms,” to remove the bones and “and suck out all the marrow of life.”

It’s an ideal that is pretty new to me in prose writing. To be honest, I wrote my first essay less than two years ago, not counting literary analysis and personal statements for applications. I wrote it because I was assigned to teach creative nonfiction and wanted to seem like less of a sham, because after almost twenty years of writing poems, I was bored and I couldn’t revise another breathy line—now the white space around my stanzas can feel like the dead zone around the outermost islands of a delta. I stubbornly associate stanzas with lyricism, music, and fragmentation instead of evidence, analysis, and narrative. But I’d like all six. Perhaps eventually I’ll bring back to poetry what I’m learning in paragraphs.


The photographic essay’s subject, approached and commented on from several angles by me as a sixth grader, is elkhorn coral. The shadows tell me that in each instance the sun was out and it was close to noon. I would have been wearing ear plugs and a rubber swim cap, and probably holding my mother’s hand, periodically scanning the surface for jellyfish, and the bottom for the next living patch of coral. Notice how barren the reef is around each colony; though I was only eleven or so, I knew that shouldn’t be the case. I was obsessed with finding coral that was still alive. I’d stay out snorkeling until the captain had to blow his airhorn twice.

When I was boy, elkhorn coral was pretty uncommon off of Key Largo. And now even more so. Between the 1970s and the early 2000s, there was a 97% loss of elkhorn in Florida and elsewhere in the Caribbean, and it was recently considered for endangered species status. White pox, an elkhorn disease caused by human sewage and exacerbated by warming oceans, makes the living tissue come off in floss-like strings. Not long ago these “giant redwoods of the reef,” as one scientist calls them, formed seemingly endless thickets on reef crests, protecting coastlines and providing habitat for countless creatures. Now in their place are often just rubble and slime.

That accidental photographic essay, I tell you with a shiver, feels to me like a message from my worried eleven-year-old self. Against the barrenness of the ocean floor, the elkhorn’s color—the orange of the turmeric capsules I take each morning—is itself a lyrical meditation on resilience and beauty, a vibrant exhortation for drastic societal change. Its rhetoric is one of triple repetition, of wholehearted focus and praise, like carving a lover’s name into sandstone, etching and re-etching the letters three times to make them last. It seems to me, even if it’s not true, that the child—offering no easy answers—was telling the man to remember and to write.

And yet a stranger, without any context, wouldn’t be moved by the photographs, which until now have been a private essay. I’d like to write a nature essay that truly speaks to the future as well, but also to my elderly self and yours, to unborn, surviving readers: I saw this, it was gorgeous, I helped destroy it—is it living somewhere still in your ocean? On the bus ride to the gym, if I close my eyes, the branched coral argument of orange—of nasturtium and Sri Lankan monk’s robe and yolks —fills me. Like an overripe pomegranate, the brain, the heart, my something-or-other splits open a bit.

It touched me and perhaps it could touch you. 

What is beautiful in your world? 


Many of the essays I love most are sliced open, cut up, segmented: Didion’s “The White Album,” Nelson’s Bluets, Carson’s “The Glass Essay,” Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. It is as if their most powerful moments bled out from the section breaks, slits in the belly of the page. “Sad is one of those words that has given up its life for our country,” Rankine writes, “it's been a martyr for the American dream, it's been neutralized, co-opted by our culture to suggest a tinge of discomfort that lasts the time it takes for this and then for that to happen, the time it takes to change a channel.” Reading those words, I’m jolted into thinking of—and feeling—ecological sadness, how we numb our solastalgia, which environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht defines as “the pain experienced when there is recognition that the place where one resides and that one loves is under immediate assault... a form of homesickness one gets when one is still at ‘home.'

In less successful essays, such as David Foster Wallace’s “Big Red Son,” those section breaks are spaces where it seems two pieces of Velcro meet, or where the glue has hardened into globs, giving you a moment to gulp down some air. There is an excess of information—“the legal disclaimer on the product’s compliance with or exemption from 18 U.S.C. §2257 and ads for phone services like 900-600-FUCK”—but not much knowledge, not much poignancy. I finish that ironic, clever essay asking, What was at stake beyond the titillation of exposing the porn industry? 

I go to such pieces of Wallace’s nonfiction for brainy entertainment, as when I watch a hilarious clip of The Daily Show. When I feel small and want to be enlarged and then pierced, I pick up Keats’ letters. Or Adrienne Rich’s What is Found There. Or Bruce Snider’s “Ammunition,” a piece broken up by bullet points about a son’s relationship with his gun-collecting father. I reach for W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn—it is, among other things, an essay. Broken up by grainy photographs, the whole book of is one long walk through Suffolk, and one unbroken bruise— blue, black, greenish-red.


A stoplight parrotfish, sleeping protected in the mucus bubble that it belched from its mouth—that’s how I see myself this afternoon, safe in the delusion that it’s all going to be okay, my nephews and their children will grow old in a beautiful world of plenty.


Tear the veil, I tell my fingers on the touchscreen keyboard as I revise this at the bar. It’s drag night. Wake me up.


Whether or not I take the round-trip flight to teach in Singapore this summer is a moral choice. In the 5.71 tons of CO2 released per passenger, each molecule is a moral assertion floating in the air.


Fifteen years from now, largely due to warming oceans, the distressed reefs in the album—the reefs of the Florida Keys—will be gone. That’s according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, not your unstable activist uncle in Berkeley.

Feeling that urgency, in an essay, or a series of linked essays, I’d like to help dispel environmental, civilizational delusions, ones subtler than Florida Governor Rick Scott banning the term “climate change” in state government communications. I want to “take the essay” of the world in 2015 and 2030 but also in the next century, and the next. I want, for instance, to cut through the dangerous hope that technology will somehow be able to put megatons of carbon back into thawing permafrost, and cause the Larsen B ice shelf to suddenly reconstitute itself, that nanobots in 2135 will remove dissolved carbon from the ocean and allow clams and coral and pteropods to once again build their shells in less acidic water. I want to visualize daily life for people in the Queensland of the future, to imagine diving what will no longer be called the Great Barrier Reef.

Imagining our harrowing future is not ecological snuff porn. It’s generative, to a point. It sounds an alarm, not a knell, since there is still time to avert the worst. For what it’s worth, it does something scary and necessary to my heart: I step outside my little kale-and-401(k) concerns; I think deeply about the suffering of other beings, and how that suffering, instead of intensifying, could be eased; the natural beauty that remains underwater is all the more precious and I’m forced to be more in the moment, to feel gratitude for this life, as when I’ve floated above purple staghorn coral that will soon be rubble, beside a Napoleon wrasse that won’t have great-grandchildren. Then I feel a simultaneous mix of thankfulness and remorse, love and solastalgia, a tender rawness that briefly frees me from a shallow engagement with nature. I don’t know how to express those sensations artfully in a lyric poem, much as I’d like to. And so I turn to writing essays, asking among other things what it’s like to experience beauty that I’m helping to destroy.


Together environmental writers—essayist Amy Leach, journalist Elizabeth Kolbert, scientist Jeremy Jackson, to name a few—are building a case for a radical transformation of our civilization. The shift might be painful and it must be swift. What such writers are building I’d like to call an “essay array,” as in the Very Large Array, the 27 antennas arranged in a dowsing-rod formation in the New Mexico desert; even though each individual dish has a diameter of 82 feet, collectively they have the resolution of a radio observatory 22 miles wide. Cutting through time and space, through the dense nebulae of Super PAC-bankrolled fantasies, these writers receive and send signals deep into the culture, which is authoring its own future through its actions and inactions.

Maybe, though, that astronomical metaphor is a self-aggrandizing exaggeration, another delusion through which to cut, like in a dream cutting into a deer’s belly only to find another layer of hairy skin instead of fat. Maybe essays—and I mean that in the broad sense I’ve been using—don’t make any difference at all, are nothing against the money of the Koch brothers and the intransigence of human nature. Maybe there is no end to our troubles, and our delights, until it all ends. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Didion famously writes in “The White Album,” though she had in mind “the sermon in the suicide” and “the social or moral lesson in the murder of five,” not an appalling narrative like that of warming, rising, acidifying seas without goosefish, without krill, without elkhorn coral. The meaning of the photographic album from my childhood, unlike so much else in this ever-shifting mirage of a life, is clear to me, at least tonight.

Greg Wrenn's first book, Centaur, opens with a multi-sectioned poem about a man surgically transformed into a centaur. His work has appeared in The New Republic, AGNI, New England Review, Kenyon Review, Boston Review, The Yale Review,and elsewhere. Currently he is at work on a book of linked essays about coral reefs, impermanence, and human destiny. A native of northeast Florida, he currently teaches at Stanford University, where he was a Wallace Stegner Fellow.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Sheila Squillante: On using asterisks like bread crumbs

Both/And: Notes Toward a Multi-Genre Craft Class

I’ve just gotten my course assignment for the fall: The Craft of Creative Writing, which I am to teach as a multi-genre class, including both poetry and creative nonfiction.

At first blush, this seems apt. I am, according to my CV, both poet and essayist.

If it appears in print, does that mean it’s true?


Am I truly equipped to teach the basics of both? My department clearly thinks I am though my academic background—my degree-- is in poetry. My book and chapbook publications are in poetry. I had never written an extended piece of prose anything until graduate school where I learned to write memoir. My first teacher was a Famous Formidable Memoirist (FFM ©) who taught as a VAP in my MFA program for a short time.

The learning environment was both bristling and rigorous.

I have to pause here and tell you something: I chose those two wordsbristling and rigorousfor a reason. I could have said any number of other words to get at what I mean.

But I didn’t because it wouldn’t have sounded as good.

See? I’m a poet. I can’t help it.


I have to figure out how to approach this class. First step, Facebook, naturally. So I prostrate myself to the hive, who buzzes enthusiastically, delivering texts that can be read as both/and. Interstitial. Prose poetry. Lyric essay. Maggie Nelson. Anne Carson. Charles Simic.

The hive has a brilliant glowing brain and wow, so much more experience than I (it feels like) with creative nonfiction. I am deluged and feel like drowning might be a good way to go.


I don’t precisely know what I’m doing. I feel this way a lot as a writer. Maybe also as a person. Sometimes I feel tender toward that vulnerability.

I say, I am a poet. Or, I am an essayist.

My job is vulnerability.

But sometimes I feel like I’m drowning in it.


One of the things I learned first about writing memoir was that in order for my reader to trust me, I had to be honest both with and about myself:

If I’m going to teach, I need to better buzz around the hive. 

Background doesn’t much matter. Keep writing. 

One of the the firsts things I learned about writing poetry was that the individual word matters:

Maybe if I just call myself “writer?” 

I could have said “overwhelmed” up there, but then you wouldn’t have seen the wave crest hugely behind me.


Do you see what I’m doing with these segments? I tend toward them these days. They mimic the way my brain buzzes and glows. Which is to say, associatively. I don’t expect the FFM would approve. I think she would demand more connective tissue. I’ve demanded as much of my own students. My colleagues and I talk about how students seem to want to write in experimental forms before they learn how to write a traditional narrative.

Like it’s a bad thing.

Maybe I think it is, too, but that could be because it’s how I began.

But then again, I’m forever telling my poets to “just write it” and stop worrying about narrative.

There are many kinds of narrative. Many ways to begin.

What does “traditional” mean?


Charles Simic once described his composition process like this:

My poems (in the beginning) are like a table on which one places interesting things one has found on one’s walk: a pebble, a rusty nail, a strangely-shaped root, a corner of a torn photograph, etc….where after months of looking at them and thinking about them daily, certain surprising relationships which hint at meanings appear.

So, juxtaposition. Parataxis. The friction and frisson between words, images, ideas.

The hint of meaning.

Oh, I like this very much.

Ask my students how many times I’ve trotted this one out to talk about composing not poems, but essays.


I don’t precisely know where I’m going with this. I’m using asterisks like bread crumbs.


The FFM taught me that I had to know what I was writing toward before I began to write it. She insisted on wisdom. It was my job to be confident. She’d have had no patience for Simic’s hinted meanings. Essentially she wanted a thesis statement:

When my domestic life was all chaos and crumble, my crappy food service job kept me focused and moving forward.

I wrote a thesis like that once.

When my memoir writing was all over the place, my thesis statement kept me focused and moving forward. 

I still write like this sometimes.


I always pictured the wisdom I was writing toward as a sparkling, golden gem—maybe amber like at the end of The Fourth State of Matter, which I did not read in her class.

Imagine it glowing, dangling at the bottom of the light cord above your computer.

Pull to illuminate.


Amber as image.
Amber as metaphor.

Hey there, poet. 


Beard’s essay taught me braiding, though I didn’t know it was called that at the time. Then, Brenda Miller taught me the word for it in “A Braided Heart: Shaping the Lyric Essay.” She also showed it to me—the word I use with students is “enacted”—on the page itself by describing teaching the form to her own students. What a smart, beautiful essay that is! What a helpful piece of pedagogy!


I spent an hour the other day annotating Sei Shonagon’s “Hateful Things.” I’m a sucker for a good, chewy list and a take-no-shit female voice.

I did this because I’ve been considering including it in the nonfiction part of the class, and annotating helps me see the scaffolding so I can help the students scale it.

In poetry, I call this going “line-by-line.”

Same difference.

Dig in.


I wouldn’t call Shonagon’s piece a memoir, though it does have the flashes of the insight and reflection the FFM would require:

A carriage passes with a nasty, creaking noise. Annoying to think that the passengers may not even be aware of this! If I am travelling in someone’s carriage and I hear it creaking, I dislike not only the noise, but also the owner of the carriage.

I wouldn’t call it a lyric essay, either, though the poet in me was delighted to find so many moments of pure music:

forever spreading out the front /of their hunting costume/or even tucking it up /under their knees

Note the line breaks, mine.


From a 10th century text we can learn about structure (she begins and ends with a leave-taking); about juxtaposition (a sneezing person sits up against dancing fleas); about perspective (some sections are as intimate as a snore, others zoom up and out to give us a crow’s eye view); about motif (the way noises—a dog’s bark, a baby’s cry, a creaky carriage-- interrupt almost-moments); about the recurrence of characters (“A man who has nothing in particular to recommend him,” shows up twice) and about what I think is one of the hardest things to teach in both poetry and creative nonfiction: ambiguity.

Shonagon’s speaker (who is most of the time “One,” but some of the time “I,”) notes how hateful she finds it when a lover “sings the praises of some woman he used to know” while he is in her presence. “Very annoying,” declares One. That confident voice all the way through.

But then, the parenthetical, the moment of honesty with and about herself:

(Yet sometimes I find that it is not as unpleasant as all that.)


Both annoyed and tantalized.

Both hateful and pleasant.

Both tradition and experiment.

Both sentence and line.

Both poet and essayist.

See you next fall.

Sheila Squillante is the author of the poetry collection, Beautiful Nerve (Tiny Hardcore Press, 2015), as well three chapbooks of poetry: In This Dream of My Father (Seven Kitchens, 2014), Women Who Pawn Their Jewelry (Finishing Line Press, 2012) and A Woman Traces the Shoreline (Dancing Girl Press, 2011). She has published work widely in print and online journals like Brevity, The Rumpus, Eleven Eleven, No Tell Motel, Prairie Schooner, MiPoesias, Phoebe, Cream City Review, TYPO, Quarterly West, Literary Mama, South Dakota Review and elsewhere. She is associate director of the MFA program and assistant professor of English at Chatham University in Pittsburgh.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Nina Boutsikaris on Sonora Review's Tiny CNF contest (May 15 deadline)

Petite and potent. That’s what Sonora Review’s flash nonfiction contest is all about. Thanks to my longtime obsession with succinct, tightly powerful writing (maybe to a fault), I’m drawn to almost anything that looks short on the page, but am just as quick to put it down if it doesn’t offer up those juicy shocks to the heart that work quickly and quietly—that only skillful brevity can accomplish. In a recent post on the Berkeley Fiction Review blog, editor Ben Rowen discusses the tricky power of Hemingway’s classic six-word short story, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Rowen writes, “Brevity is important, but only insofar as it is evocative and not on the nose. Hemingway’s story is clear enough to convey meaning and is still suggestive.” Imagine, he adds, anyone else telling Hemingway’s same short story in six lame words: “She miscarried, needs her money back.” Deflated, to say the least. If we can agree that the truth cannot be told head on, how then will you evoke the truth in less than 800 words? How much history can you squeeze into one seemingly small scene? How far can you send a simple exchange rippling?

We’re super proud to have Amy Leach judge this year’s contest. There is something seriously whimsical about Leach, and by that I mean both very much whimsical and, perhaps not so surprisingly, heartily potent—like Lewis Carroll, as she has often been compared. I was drawn to her first book of essays, Things that Are, due to the apparent brevity of each piece in the collection—Leach’s meditations on wayward moths, nervous caterpillars, chocolate mint-filled comforters, talking stars and trees that dream of being trees come at the reader in short bursts of both childlike wonder. But they also hum with tongue in cheek wisdom: kind of spiky, kind of sweet, and more evocative then a first glance allows.

So. You’ve only got a week left before submissions close on May 15th. Beat us up with your tiny moments. We love it.


Nina is a nonfiction MFA candidate at the University of Arizona, where she is a writing instructor and the nonfiction editor of Sonora Review. Recent work appears or is forthcoming in The Los Angeles Review, Puerto del Sol, Hobart, Mid-American Review, Brevity, Booth, and elsewhere.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

There Are Places Like Home, Writing as Departure: An Interview with Bonnie Friedman

Bonnie Friedman’s Surrendering Oz: A Life in Essays, was longlisted for the 2015 PEN award for the Art of the Essay and shorlisted for the 2015 CLMP Firecracker Award for Creative Nonfiction Writing. It's a warm, enchanting, teeming pool of connected essays that can startle and deceive a reader. The prose hums along, playful and quirky, and, without a warning, will turn and point to something inside the reader that he or she didn't know was there. It is unnerving, but ultimately enrapturing, the writer who can lead a reader to self-analysis.

What organizes Surrendering Oz are reflections on the moments of perverse, fantastical speculation that leave one oblivious to the now, eyes swerving from external reality. In this quest, Friedman’s probing is reminiscent of her second book, The Thief of Happiness: The Story of an Extraordinary Psychotherapy, but offers arresting new insights.

Friedman’s best-selling, most anthologized work is Writing Past Dark: Envy, Fear, Distraction, and Other Dilemmas in the Writer’s Life, but almost all of Friedman's writing ends up in marquee journals and collections: Ploughshares, Image, The Sun, Utne Reader, Best American Movie Writing, Best Spiritual Writing, Best Writing on Writing. Apart from the skilled hands of a book architect, she has a viable life: tenured teaching job at the University of North Texas and time split between the hipster college town Denton, and Brooklyn.

We sat down in her office at the UNT campus on an unusually frigid day in North Texas, where heat is usually so thick it is taken for granted that the asphalt will stick to tires.  --Clinton Crockett Peters


Clinton Crockett Peters: “It still happens to some of us that we land the job, win the award, celebrate the marriage — and succumb to a certain bewildering joylessness, a familiar sense of fraudulence, an inability to feel the anticipated pleasure. The sensation of being insufficiently alive.” Why did you open the book, Surrendering Oz, with this very cutting observation on the first page?

Bonnie Friedman:  I wanted to start by announcing the problem, or one of the problems, that I was going to look at in the book.
     One of the themes of the book is a kind of death-in-life quality that I believe afflicts many people, and that we don’t like to talk about because it makes us feel weird and ashamed. We tell ourselves – and our culture tells us -- that if we could only achieve x or succeed at y, we’ll be happy. And so, if this doesn’t happen, we often assume that we need to pursue the next recognition or life-event that will make us happy. I recall quite vividly discovering a certain wonderful essay acceptance, and feeling ecstatic for precisely one day. And yet, as it happened, other things that weren’t supposed to be of any vast significance to me made me feel radiant in a far more enduring way.
     So this was one of the things that I wanted the essays to examine because it had really been a troubling theme in my own life: self-possession versus zoning out. Those of us who were trained in being liked, being charming and nice are, I think, particularly in danger of a certain self-estrangement that makes our internal life a mystery and a problem. And I wanted to examine this, and to announce my intention from the outset.

CCP: Reading your book, I'm reminded that part of growing up is realizing that there is no plot, no author, but a kind of discursiveness to existence. What helps a writer come to terms with this cold reality and help others understand?

BF: I think the act of writing itself can be enormously useful because it is as if you are setting down on a swathe of your own life this magnifying-glass paperweight. Did you ever see one of those? They distend but render legible whatever you set them on. And writing does this, allows a certain portion of our experience to swim up vividly before abruptly subsiding.
     Examining the significance, and also the textures, of one’s own experience is an enormously consoling activity and bestows the sensation that one’s life has become tangible and carryable, something you can put in your pocket, something you can use like a coin or an ax, something transfigured, whereas in fact, of course, the life remains whatever it was. The writing is quite separate from it.
     Then, too, I think this “cold reality” that (as you aptly put it) there is no plot, no author, but a kind of discursiveness to existence -- I think this is not cold but actually quite hot, that is, quite thrilling. It means that we can free ourselves from worshipping the false gods of our culture. It is awful to spend years setting down pots and vessels before a god only to discover that the god is made of stone – especially if the pots and vessels you have set before it are full of your own life blood. Any of us who has had this experience – of thinking that the god would reward us for some needless sacrifice we’ve spend years making, of thinking that all the miserable grubby goody points we’d collected would be redeemed, only to find out that no, you are not actually rewarded for masochism and perhaps even cowardly self-sacrifice – wants to spare others.
     I’m thrilled to see that you find in my pages this message about the discursiveness of existence. I’m so glad to think it’s there. I believe what de Beauvoir and Sartre believed, I suppose, which is that it is up to us to create the meaning in our lives.

CCP: One thing I'm routinely surprised by in your work is the analysis you've done on your former self to understand who you were in the moment. Is that product of time, reflection, writing, therapy, some sort of combination?

BF: Years ago I was in psychotherapy, and if I hadn’t been in it, I believe I wouldn’t really know how to think. This is despite the fact that I had two graduate degrees by the time I began psychotherapy. Until I was in psychotherapy it was as if I lived in a house that was haunted. There were inner howls whose significance I had no way of understanding, and cold gusts that came up from under the floorboards, and myriad sensations I dismissed because they made no sense to me. I loved my sister; how could I also resent her? I adored my friends; how could they also frighten me? In psychotherapy I discovered the truth of ambivalence – which ultimately allowed me to become free to choose truly kind friends who didn’t arouse ambivalence. The friends I have now don’t frighten me. Similarly, in psychotherapy I discovered that there were important reasons for those cold gusts, those strange howls – that is, I discovered that we each of us make sense, if we’ll only bother to dignify the internal signs with real scrutiny.
     And this discipline in noticing meaning transformed my writing. There was no going back. It was enormously satisfying to finally see what things meant, to no longer, in a way, be a dope. Although I must say that when I reflect on a former self I am also reflecting on who I am now, as all our former selves are stuffed inside us. And so there’s never anything idle in the work. I’ve known many people who seem averse to self-awareness. It’s too excruciating for them to see what they are doing. And so I’m grateful for having had the training in noticing. And for being allowed to develop a writing discipline that allows me to develop my understanding.

CCP:  A really general question, but how do you go about organizing your essays?

BF: I am always pursuing the answer to a question. Sometimes I have to progress by association. An image appears, or a memory, that I know is a step on the way to answering the question, and I have to write down that image or depict that memory to discover its meaning. And then sometimes I can’t just shortcut to the meaning once I’ve found it. I have to leave in the little scene that conjured the meaning because that’s part of the meaning, it’s, in a way, the body of the meaning. After all, writing isn’t really about an idea but an experience. There are no new ideas, only new experiences. And so we have to leave in what we hope will help the reader experience the insight at which we’ve been lucky enough to arrive.

CCP: Thinking about “The Watcher,” how did it shape up to be about your dad, your sister, graveyards, and getting to be, as you write, “a grown-up, grown-up”? What was it like pulling together all these strands?

BF: I wrote the first draft at the encouragement of a friend. He liked the stories I would tell about visiting my parents. He would read these stories aloud to his own friends. I used to send him one installment a week, detailing that Wednesday’s visit to the Bronx. He would read these stories aloud to his dinner-party friends on Friday night.
     This friend gave me some terrible advice. It was advice so bad that it absorbed years of my writing life because I couldn’t help following it. He thought that if I wrote down every single thing that happened while I visited my parents, and didn’t try to shape the sections in any way whatsoever, and also if I explained nothing, simply assuming that the reader would get it, that I’d have a masterpiece.
     And of course it felt magnificent to believe this. I don’t need to do anything! The book is writing itself! “You are channeling from the source,” my friend would tell me. “Don’t try to understand.” Put like that, it sounds like a joke. But my friend was serious. And he’s one of the smartest people I know.
     I took hundreds of pages of notes. But when I approached an actual publisher with the manuscript, and when I shared it with writer friends, they complained about shapelessness. “It’s yard goods,” my husband said. And they were right.
     But I did get from it this one particular essay. Since I wrote down everything that happened on this graveyard visit, I had a transcript of the conversations – funny and sad and wrenching – that happened, as well as a chronicle of my secret worries at the time. And then I worked on giving it shape. I realized that something significant needed to change by the end of the essay. And that there was a main character -- my father – who was going through a major struggle. It was all there in the notes; it merely needed drawing forth by allowing the major scenes to breathe and by allowing myself the kind of meditation that’s natural to the essay form.

CCP: In several of the essays in Surrendering Oz, you mention some anxieties with taking your first tenure-track job at the University of North Texas. How has entering the academy full time affected your life and writing?

BF: There is less time to write and yet I believe my writing has more authority. I had been writing for years alone in my own little room at the back of my apartment. My husband was supporting me. I wore pajamas until four PM, and even went to the local Key Food in them – they were lilac stretched-out sweatpants. I didn’t think it mattered what I wore; I believed I was semi-invisible, semi-make-believe.
     Teaching allows a person to experience their own authority. And teaching a great deal allows you to encounter many different kinds of people. I’ve acquired a bit of perspective I believe I wouldn’t have otherwise. Previously I was glued to my experiences, immersed in them. My writing was an attempt to acquire some distance on them, to detach. Teaching, and simply being out in the work world, makes it easier to achieve that detachment and even to view oneself as a character in life’s great carnival. I’m certain I wouldn’t have achieved that viewpoint if I’d remained in my little writing room, delectable as it was there.

CCP: The book’s title essay combines your film criticism of The Wizard of Oz with personal reflection. How did you muster the courage to combine genres? Did you have any anxieties about writing critically?

BF: I had no anxiety about writing critically because I was writing for my life. I urgently needed to understand what was the matter with me, and the answer seemed to be, believe it or not, inside The Wizard of Oz, that great cultural icon.
     I needed to understand who in my life had said, “Go this far and no farther.” I needed to understand why I’d gotten stuck when I’d achieved professional endorsement at long last. And I didn’t have any memory of my parents or my teachers telling me to stop, to turn back. But I did suddenly remember – yes, quite clearly – that The Wizard of Oz had taught me “there’s no place like home,” and that if I ever believed I’d lost my heart’s desire – if I really believed it lay further than my own back yard – then by some strange illogic I must be confused because by definition a girl couldn’t want anything more extensive than that. By definition female wants were wants for home.
     And so I examined The Wizard of Oz with a kind of extraordinary delight because I kept finding in it clues to understanding my own quandary. I could see how the male adventure story held an opposite message – that a man was supposed to feel at home in the world. And by the time I was done looking at the Oz story, it really had transformed me. After that I really was able to begin doing the work for which I’d been contracted. Studying Oz helped get me over my writer’s block. I remember sitting in that ice-glazed hammock in my back yard just thrilled by this sensation of ambient beauty – and it was ironic because there was a way everything I wanted was tucked within my own back yard, but I’d had to venture very far to see this. Men are encouraged to have this experience of going far away whereas women are taught to be ambivalent about departure. They are taught that home might not withstand their going. And for me, writing involved departure. It involved the permission to go far away.

CCP: I remember you once saying that you found it difficult to write without large blocks of time. Has it always been this way for you? What's changed?

BF: Alas, little has changed. I still need large blocks of time. Mostly I get them on the weekends.

CCP: Your essays can be very revealing in their intimacy. Was there any discussion with your husband, Paul, for instance, about how you would address certain details?

BF: I’ve been very lucky in that my husband has never quarreled with what I needed to write and to publish. I told him what was in the book after it was done. He didn’t concern himself with it. It was somehow my business. I love the freedom that he assumes ought to be mine. Gertrude Stein wrote, “I write for myself and strangers.” That’s true of me as well. I’d almost prefer that nobody I know read my books, although I’m grateful when they do.

CCP: What's the best way that you know to understand one's self on the page?

BF: The best way I know is to write the scenes that carry a great emotional freight and then to pay attention to the clues they provide. The very act of taking something – a person, a thing – from the medium of life and ushering it into the medium of writing changes its valence. Awarenesses that might have been inaccessible your whole life suddenly jump out.
     Also, certain objects taken from life will become emblems when you plant them on the page. A pair of down-at-the-heels oxblood tassel loafers that are scuffed in the back and that your boyfriend wore – suddenly you see how they have an air of almost theatrical self-pity to them: they indicate a person who hadn’t been nurtured enough and who is melancholic and sulky, but for a good reason. The shoes, when you describe them in all their particularity, tell you that. Even the width of the leather frill that is typical of such shoes; suddenly you see it as a kind of rick-rack bib.
     Pay attention to what the things are telling you, and what the arrangement of characters is telling you, and what you glean yourself even if you don’t know how you do. That is always a good practice. Our writing allows us to be dreamer and analyst, and to tell the future, as well.


BONNIE FRIEDMAN’s newest book is Surrendering Oz: A Life in Essays, which was longlisted for the 2015 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. Her essays have appeared in The Best American Movie Writing, The Best Buddhist Writing, The Best Writing on Writing, The Practical Stylist: with Readings, and The Best of O., the Oprah Magazine, and she’s had two Notable Essays in The Best American Essays. She is also the author of the bestselling and widely anthologized Writing Past Dark: Envy, Fear, Distraction, and Other Dilemmas in the Writer’s Life. She teaches at the University of North Texas, and divides her time between Denton, Texas, and Brooklyn, New York.

CLINTON CROCKETT PETERS has an MFA in nonfiction from the University of Iowa where he was an Iowa Arts Fellow. He is pursuing a PhD in creative writing at the University of North Texas and has work published or forthcoming in Shenandoah, Green Mountains Review, upstreet, Waxwing, The Rumpus, Fourth Genre, and DIAGRAM. He has worked as an outdoor wilderness guide, an English teacher in Japan, and as a radio DJ.